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Joe Kennedy’s muddled message

As he tries to unseat US Senator Edward J. Markey, JPK III seems unable to offer a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Indeed, Markey is making a far better case for why he deserves to stay.

Why should Joe Kennedy replace Ed Markey in the Senate? Even Kennedy seems uncertain of the answer.MEREDITH NIERMAN/wgbh-pool

Joseph P. Kennedy III has a problem — and like the family friend in “The Graduate,” I have a helpful one-word suggestion.

No, not plastics.


But first, Kennedy’s quandary. As he tries to unseat US Senator Edward J. Markey, JPK III seems unable to offer a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Indeed, Markey is making a far better case for why he deserves to stay.

Last weekend, he smoked Kennedy in the first stage of the caucuses for delegates to the state Democratic Party’s May convention, which will anoint a favorite for the Senate. Meanwhile, the senator’s endorsements, on both the state and national levels, are much more impressive.


And despite his rival’s famous name and connections, Markey is staying within fund-raising range. At year’s end, Kennedy had more campaign cash on hand — $5.5 million compared to Markey’s $4.6 million — but the incumbent won’t suffer for lack of resources.

Cut to this week’s first campaign debate, at WGBH. In her lead-off question, Margery Eagan asked Kennedy why he was trying to defeat a man who championed so many of the issues he himself supports.

“Look, for this election, this time around, so much of what we care about, everything that we care about, is on the line,” essayed Kennedy. “And what is at stake for us, for our party, our Commonwealth, and our country, this one counts. And for this moment, we have to make sure that you have a United States senator that is giving everything you possibly have to make sure that you guide our party and our Commonwealth through it.”

Mind you, those weren’t the sum total of Kennedy’s, um, thoughts.

“Massachusetts, this is not a swing state, and this is not a swing seat,” he noted. (Indisputably not.) So, “This is about making sure that one, you are a constant presence in Massachusetts.”


And on it went, a frantic posse of words galloping about in search of a coherent idea.

One suspects what JPK III really wanted to say was this: Because I’m younger and more energetic — and besides, do you really think Markey spends weekends in that modest house in Malden rather than his million-dollar manse in Chevy Chase, Md.?

A few minutes later, Kennedy claimed nothing big had happened in Washington on guns or the environment in decades. Whereupon Markey pointed out that, in December, he had won passage of $25 million to fund the Centers for Disease Control research into the causes of gun violence, something the NRA had blocked for nearly a quarter-century. And he highlighted his 2007 law setting the stage for the Obama administration’s big increase in vehicle fuel efficiency standards, which Markey noted had brought about “the single largest reduction of greenhouse gases of any law ever passed in any country.”

If this debate is prologue, painful times lie ahead, both for JPK III and for Massachusetts voters.

But just think if Joe came down with a year-long bout of laryngitis. He wouldn’t have to do any more debates. Or even talk to reporters, really. Asked a question, he could just point at his throat, smile, and shrug.

In the closing days of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton developed such a malady. On the campaign trail, he would croak out a few remarks, then leave it to others to present his pitch.


So whom to pick to state JPK III’s case? Certainly not hotheaded Dad or high-handed Uncle Robert. That would be like balancing astride a pair of raging bulls as they stampeded through the campaign china shop.

My nominee: Great Aunt Vicki Reggie Kennedy.

Imagine her standing there with Joe, delivering this message: Massachusetts needs another Kennedy in the Senate. And just like Ted, Joe can do more for Massachusetts.

JPK III could blush and shake his head modestly, as though to disavow the comparison with the storied senator — even while Vicki gave voice to his secret thoughts.

There is some risk involved, of course. Crowds would quickly come to say: If we really need another Kennedy, wouldn’t Vicki be better than Joe?

Still, it’s the best solution I can think of.

Short of Kennedy developing a coherent rationale for his candidacy, that is.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.